Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Finding Kindred Souls

You could say that David Gurewitsch inherited Wanda Landowska from his mother. A pioneer of rehabilitative medicine, Dr. Maria Gurewitsch treated Wanda for more than a decade. The problem was that Wanda never paid her bills. Weary of making collection calls, Maria Gurewitsch picked up the phone and struck a bargain:

“If I can come and listen to you practice, you don’t have to pay your bills.”

Wanda agreed but added a caveat. “You may come and listen to me practice, but I won’t tell you ahead of time. I will call you and you must be able to drop everything come at that very moment.”

One more proviso and the deal was made: “Very well, then,” Gurewitsch said. “I shall come when you call, but I would like for my son David to have the same privilege.”
It was the younger Dr. Gurewitsch, a physician who reveled in metaphor, who on May 31, 1946, took an X-ray of Wanda Landowska’s hands. He had no medical purpose in mind but was hoping to see what her bones showed: Could a skeleton reveal what it took to make a fugue transcendent? The implicit playful question was whether a look inside her might explain how she played that way.

I learned about Wanda's practice-as-payment plans from Mrs. Edna P. Gurewitsch, the widow of David. Reading the caption on the plaque beneath the X-ray led me to research the physician and right away I learned that Wanda wasn't the only female historical figure with whom David Gurewitsch had a connection.

From 1948 to 1962, Gurewitsch served as the personal physician to Eleanor Roosevelt. The two shared a passionate mutual attachment that might best be described as a chaste affair. Mrs. Roosevelt confessed to David Gurewitsch that she had fallen in love with him. The romantic feelings were unrequited but the friendship continued and flourished. In fact, Mrs. Roosevelt spent most of the last decade of her life living with Dr. Gurewitsch and his wife, Edna. The latter recounted at length her husband’s special relationship with Mrs. Roosevelt in a memoir titled Kindred Souls. Edna P. Gurewitsch briefly recounted her husband's friendship (and her mother-in-law’s friendship) with Wanda Landowska in a brief series of phone conversations and letters with me in 2008.

For anyone interested in a moving, personal narrative about Mrs. Roosevelt, Kindred Souls is a terrific read.

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